An insider’s view on the decline in local government democracy

Copied from local Government Chronicle online

Inside out: Dull politics repels potential candidates
25 June, 2014

‘Somebody else making the case for party politics being excluded from local government.’

I look round our council meetings and see old white men in eight out of 10 seats. I walk through the town centre and see a refreshing diversity – women, and people of all ages, religions and ethnic groups. The comparison is disturbing.

Our councillors are smashing people. They put in more than 25 hours a week on council business and are deeply committed to our community and council. But the internal monoculture has the same problems as acres of barley across a landscape – it is boring and dominates at the expense of everything else. It is not the barley’s fault; the system and the farmer are responsible.

It’s the same in local government. Councillors are not to blame. It’s the system of local government and the political parties that “farm” councillors. I don’t think changing the times of council meetings will encourage young women or men to become councillors. If enough councillors had jobs and kids, it would be no time before we changed meeting times and provided a crèche. We have to think wider.

How does somebody become a councillor? First, they have to be interested in the role. At the moment we are collapsing into bins, bogs and brushes. Devolve real power back to us, including powers over raising money. Open up debate, eg through open committee decision making. Then we might have more chance of people becoming sufficiently interested to want to become a councillor.

Second, the normal route for someone to become a councillor is through being active in a political party. Community activists who become councillors are the exception rather than the rule.

So parties have to change if we are to move away from the current norm. Parties need to look at how they reach out to different types of people, develop a welcoming and flexible culture and way of operating. They need to develop their members to be equipped to be councillors and review the way they are selected to stand as candidates.

I’ve spoken to young people about getting involved in politics and meeting times have not been mentioned ever. The main turn-offs are ignorance about what we do, formal politics is seen as inaccessible and “not for them”, but mostly because we are dull.

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Extend councillor recruitment drive, MPs urge

Here’s an article that should get some of my regular readers talking, groaning or seething, depending on their view of elected members.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
10 January, 2013 | By Kaye Wiggins

MPs have called for the LGA’s ‘Be a councillor’ campaign to be extended, warning that too many elected representatives did not reflect their local communities.

The cross-party Communities and Local Government select committee praised the LGA’s campaign in a report about the role of councillors, published on Thursday. The campaign aims to encourage people from a wide range of backgrounds to stand as councillors, in time for the May 2013 local elections.

‘Political row over allowances claim’, see bottom of page

“The Local Government Association deserves credit for its work on the Be a Councillor programme, which is playing an important role in encouraging a wider group of people to stand at local elections”, the report said.

“We would encourage the LGA to expand the programme, under its established branding, to enable it to play a wider role in the promotion of local democracy.”

MPs said it was a “matter of concern” that “the composition of many councils does not reflect that of the communities they serve.”

“It is important to increase the proportion of women, younger people and black and minority ethnic people serving on local authorities”, they said in the report.

The MPs also criticised communities secretary Eric Pickles for his use of terms such as “guided localism” and “muscular localism”, accusing the Department for Communities & Local Government of “an inability to let go of the reins” that was “frustrating and confusing” for councillors.

“We once again urge the government to rein in its interventionist instincts”, it said.

The report also said:

The levels of councillors’ allowances “can be a deterrent to people standing for election”. Councils should be allowed to hand decisions about councillors’ allowances to independent local bodies
Councils should consider providing councillors with officer support to help them to manage their casework
The government should incentivise employers to support employees who were councillors
Councillors should not be blocked from influencing local services that were delivered by external providers
Councils should be allowed to compensate councillors for loss of earnings as part of their allowance
Most councillors were hard-working and committed – but some “do little work and, because theyrepresent safe seats, have little incentive to do more.” Councils should set up measures to deal with councilor under-performance
To read the report, click here

Political row over allowances claim
The committee’s report sparked a political row, after Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps and local government minister Brandon Lewis branded its warning that low allowances could deter would-be councillors and call for councillors to be allowed to be compensated for any loss of earnings that they suffer as a “cynical and sleazy move”. Claiming the cross-party committee’s report had come from “Labour politicians” and pointing to Labour Party rules under which a share of its councillors’ allowances are transferred to the party’s own funds, Mr Shapps said Labour was trying to increase the party’s budget. “Local taxpayers will be shocked to learn that the Labour Party will be quids in from Labour demands for more taxpayers’ money on councillor allowances”, he said.

Mr Lewis added: “Labour are completely out of touch with local taxpayers by calling for higher councillor allowances and defending pensions for councillors.”

However, a spokeswoman for the committee pointed out that the report’s findings and recommendations had been approved by politicians of all parties. Labour MP Clive Betts, chair of the committee, said he was “saddened by the reaction of Brandon Lewis and Grant Shapps who have stoked this negativity and undermined a serious concern of councillors from their own party”.

“Allowances remain low and act as a deterrent for many considering whether to stand for election,” he added. “This is particularly an issue for employed people and those with young families, who lose income when taking time out from work for their councillor duties. The committee therefore called for councils to have the option to have decisions about allowances to be taken out of councillors’ hands and transferred to independent local bodies.

“We also found that people are put off by shallow political point scoring, which makes the response of Mr Lewis and Mr Shapps all the more disappointing.”

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Pickles shoots from the hip – again

Eric Pickles has finally said something I agree with – local government employment rules are an anachronism and need to be changed. However, in order to grab yet another 15 minutes of fame and plenty of headlines, he’s conveniently overlooked that annoying thing called the legal system. I doubt whether too many councils will be tapping their highly paid CX on the shoulder and handing him or her their P45 anytime soon, simply based on a vote taken at a full council meeting.

The lawyers must love Eric Pickles, first the farce over Regional Strategies, now he’s inviting all the employment lawyers to order a new Aston Martin paid for by local taxpayers.

Copyright Local Government Chronicle
9 November, 2012 | By Ruth Keeling

Employment protections for council officers look set to be removed as communities secretary Eric Pickles renews his battle with “bureaucratic barons” and “golden goodbyes”.

Ministers are expected to propose the scrapping of a rule which requires councils to appoint a lawyer to conduct a review when an officer is suspended – a rule originally introduced to prevent dismissals motivated by political issues.

Mr Pickles is understood to be frustrated that councils frequently arrange large pay offs for chief executives in order to avoid the appointment of a lawyer and an expensive and lengthy investigation into the suspension.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said an amendment to the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) Regulations 2001 would come “into effect early in the new year following a short consultation” which is not to last more than four weeks. It is not clear whether the amendment will affect section 151 officers and monitoring officers as well as chief executives and DCLG have been asked to clarify.

Writing in the Telegraph, he said: “Watching incompetent bureaucratic barons bouncing from one post to another with only a nice payoff to cushion their fall has been a source of immense frustration to many local government colleagues.

“At present getting rid of your chief exec involves a series of fantastical labyrinthine twists and turns — beginning with the appointment of a high-flying lawyer to review the case. It takes forever and costs a small fortune. One case took 16 months to adjudicate and racked up costs of £420,000.”

He added: “The days of lining your pockets at the expense of the taxpayer are over. In future, what’s decided in the full democratic council chamber will be what counts. And if elected representatives decide a chief executive is for the chop. So be it.”

The proposal is one of a raft of announcements made by Mr Pickles on Friday, including a call for councils get rid of the chief executive altogether.

A press release issued by the on Friday said: “The post of chief executive is not set in statute, which means there are no central barriers to remove the role. It only takes a simple democratic decision by the council. Several councils have done this in the past year. The statutory head of paid service role can be done by another senior officer.”

The secretary of state has also written to the LGA to “urge them to take steps to improve their performance management of senior posts” and he announced plans to strengthen guidance on the publication of pay policies.

Currently councils are advised to hold a vote on pay deals over £100,000, but Mr Pickles said smaller councils who do not have such high salaries should set a lower vote threshold and warned that ministers would regulate if councils don’t act on it.

DCLG said: “With a public worried about the cost of living and all parts of the public sector looking to make deficit savings, Ministers believe these steps will show taxpayers that value for money is being fully considered for top paid staff.”

Don’t get misled by the facts

There’s a piece in the latest Local Government Association (LGA) First magazine, that could easily prove extremely misleading to elected members, given that it suggests that, despite all the budget cuts and threats to services, councils’ are doing okay.

The article is actually extracted from something written Neil Wholey, Head of Research and Customer Insight at Westminster City Council – whatever that is, the job, not the council. Whilst the piece may not be inaccurate in any way, the author obviously knows his stuff and the facts are the facts, it’s certainly likely to offer a misleading picture to those who, when reading it, don’t bother to separate out the elements that make up a council.

As a LGA publication, it’s difficult not to see the magazine as primarily a vehicle for communicating with elected members, as opposed to the professionals and this where the misleading bit begins.  The article called, Residents’ Views, tells the reader that, despite all the hardships being visited on taxpayers by government, local government’s reputation is doing surprisingly well.

I’ve no reason to doubt what the author is saying when it comes to public opinion, especially if the questions were asked in a way that avoids any reference to the politics of the council.  The problem comes when an elected member reads this and either misses, or completely ignores, the basis on which the questions were asked.  The public are expressing a view of their experience of the council, not the councillors.

I wonder what the answer would have been if, instead of asking, ‘overall do you think the council is providing good services in your area?’ they had asked, ‘how well do you think the (insert political group name as appropriate) are running your local council?’.  By inserting politics into the question, you immediately invite a biased response, based on the politics of the person being asked the question. Taken a step further, even if the council is performing well, the fact that it is controlled by one, or other of the political parties, will be far more influential when it comes to an election, than any public satisfaction survey, however rosy a picture it paints.

 

My point is, that any politician reading this and taking it at face value, could be in danger of deluding themselves in to thinking that taxpayer satisfaction with ‘the council’, is the same as satisfaction with ‘the councillors’.